Man on the Move
From quietly plying his trade as an antiques dealer and designer in rural Oregon to wowing national and international collectors with his fashion-forward creations, DeWayne Lumpkin is a local man on the move — although today he's not so sure about his destination.
"They hated me at the show in California last week," bemoans the approachable 40-something who was born in Medford and sports sandy brown hair, stylishly fringed sneakers and Madras shorts.
He's moving deftly around a heavy, wooden desk toward the hand-painted furniture at his Home Economics booth in the back of H Street Antiques & Interiors in Grants Pass. He moves a wingback chair just so and lets out a half-sigh. "It was all high-end estate ladies, and they looked at me like I'd snuck in the back door."
Apparently, these collectors didn't recognize the creative genius behind Lumpkin's wave-making wholesale product line: wall art, soft goods (including pillows, curtain panels, lampshades, bed skirts and table linens) and upholstered furniture adorned with his trend-setting vintage British Transit Route signs.
About eight years ago, Lumpkin came across a small supply of the 30- to 60-foot-long calico signs, which show destinations for double-decker buses, trams and trolleys throughout the United Kingdom. He cut them into 3- to 6-foot sections and sold them to people who were drawn to the names on the signs: Liverpool, New York, Roberttown, Greg Street, Hyde Park or whatever.
When he sold his last one at the Alameda Antiques by the Bay market for a pretty penny a couple years back, a light bulb went off.
"That led me to the quest to have them available at every show and to find a source in Great Britain," says Lumpkin, who located a "bus enthusiast" whose parents drove the country's signature, double-decker buses their entire lives. "They had the foresight to hold onto the old ones as they were replaced over the years. Most are from the 1920s through the 1970s, and he has decades' worth."
The only problem was nobody really knew how to display the vertical signs without expensive framing that took away from their natural patina.
Noticing that the vintage school maps in his store were hung by dowels at the top and bottom, Lumpkin applied the same system to his signs. Now customers can simply roll up their purchase, take it home and hang it.
"That was a pretty proud moment," confesses Lumpkin, "because that was really the fly in the ointment. Looking back, it's pretty basic, and it also meant I could put 50 in a duffel bag and fly them to New York, and it's really rare to have a portable project in the antique business."
The breakthrough design kept Lumpkin on the road constantly through 2009, doing three or more coast-to-coast tours a month and getting lots of attention from designers, photographers and design publications.
Then, like most creatives, he got a little bored. As sales started to slow, he was struck with inspiration that became the "big switch" earlier this year.
"I'd been trimming and selling signs for eight years, and I saved every, single scrap," he says. "So I tried throwing them in the washing machine to see what would happen. It softened up the vinyl feel, and that allowed us to create a soft-goods line."
Launched at gift shows in Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and San Francisco, the line of timeless yet whimsical home-decor items has been featured in several magazines, design blogs and even the New York Times "Home" section. Lumpkin now employs a person to paint dowels, an upholsterer and seamstress. Prices vary from the low hundreds for a hanging sign or pillow to $2,000 for a custom chair.
"It's really reinvigorated the sales, and it's a way of utilizing scrap instead of throwing it away," says Lumpkin, who has recently added lampshades and has his eye on clothing. "And I like that we are elevating a total utilitarian object to high art — this is often referred to as 'upcycling' instead of recycling."
So far, Lumpkin has gone through about 300 of the 60-foot signs, and his products can be found in 23 stores across the United States and Canada — not bad for a hometown boy with an eye for design.
To see some of Lumpkin's products, visit Home Economics inside H Street Antiques & Interiors,138 H St., Grants Pass; or Prize, 264 E. Main St., Ashland. His website is www.britishroutesigndesigns.com.
Jennifer Strange is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.